Dems Worry About How Data Will Be Used In COVID-19 Fight

By Nadia Dreid
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Law360 (March 19, 2020, 6:27 PM EDT) -- A Democratic senator has said he is concerned by reports that the federal government is considering using location data held by major tech companies to track the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., wrote to the Trump administration on Thursday urging the executive branch to "balance privacy with any data-driven solutions to the current public health crisis."

Though reports said the administration was only seeking to sift through aggregated and anonymized location data for insights, Markey said that also posed a privacy risk because of the amount of information that can be extracted from such data.

"Attempting to limit smartphone location data in this manner is insufficient to preclude violations of Americans' privacy," Markey said. "We need assurances that collection and processing of these types of information, even if aggregated and anonymized, do not pose safety and privacy risks to individuals."

Markey isn't the only one concerned about privacy being breached as the federal government works to contain the spread of COVID-19, which had infected more than 11,000 people in the United States as of Thursday afternoon.

Five other Democratic senators wrote to Vice President Mike Pence on the same day with questions about the administration's planned rollout of a website powered by Google to shepherd individuals with symptoms toward testing sites.

The lawmakers — former presidential candidates Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey among them — told the White House that there were "myriad privacy concerns about such an endeavor," including whether Google will be responsible for not using the personal data it collects for commercial purposes.

"We are concerned that the administration and any third-party participant in such a venture has not appropriately accounted for the clear privacy and cybersecurity vulnerabilities in deploying and effectuating such a system," the senators said.

The senators want to know where the buck stops and who will be responsible for the website, according to the letter, which posed more than a dozen questions that the senators expect the White House to answer.

Specifically, they are concerned about the risk Americans could be exposed to through data breaches and whether all the data protection plans would be compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The administration unveiled its plan last week to launch a website in partnership with Google that would allow people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to answer a few questions about their health and be directed to a testing site, if necessary.

Big box retailers and pharmacy chains, such as Walmart, Target and CVS, have all agreed to lend their parking lots for use as drive-through test sites, the president said on March 13.

But the test sites are slow going, and states have said they are still struggling to get their hands on what they need. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said on Wednesday that he's had to freeze 1,700 samples, because the state doesn't have the means to test them and has asked for more help.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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